(or Why Speaking Out is the Greatest Strength of All)
725,000 people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder. 10% of those are male...and I am one of them. But if it took me so long to seek help, then I can only imagine the actual figure of male sufferers is much higher.
I still remember the day I broke down sobbing to my GP as if I’d just lost my beloved pet Guinea Pig. After three years in its grasp, I had finally admitted to my ‘big secret’. I had never been so scared.
The same voices that told me to binge eat were telling me not to go; not to expose their ugly behaviour to the world around me. To my relief, my GP understood with open arms. For the very first time I felt like I was on the road to unravelling the wires in my brain that locked me in an unhealthy relationship with food: sabotaging my health, and my happiness. Although the original triggers are long gone, this behaviour often stands in the way of returning to the place I knew.
As an adventurer and professional speaker, you might look at what I’ve done so far as a beacon of strength. Multiple endurance challenges, two Everest attempts, overcoming personal challenges like stammering and natural disasters, completing 24-hour solo bike rides, competitive running, and so on.
“What do you have to feel down about?!” people laugh. It’s a question I wish I could answer myself.
Epilepsy at nine years old was the catalyst for anxiety, low self-esteem and OCD. Relentless bullying had left me feeling worthless about myself. Luckily, I found my escape in adventure and outdoor sports, and life was good again.
Being outdoors is probably the most powerful weapon going for me. It finally gave me a reason to feel good about myself and a confidence to be who I really was.
Despite being utterly pants in sport at school, I discovered a love for competitive running and was soon winning races. But then, I got injured. My coping mechanism and purpose was stolen, opening those earlier wounds and chucking me head-first into the worst bout of depression of my life.
Trying to take control, I thought I would work on improving my nutrition whilst unable to exercise for almost a year. Unfortunately, being a perfectionist sent this the other way and I ended up with an eating disorder. First binge-eating (BED), and then bulimia nervosa. Food became both my biggest enemy and my best friend. This dangerous cycle of binging and purging entirely controlled my life. I felt I was back where I’d started all over again.
At rock bottom, the only way was back up. Although the brain takes a while to re-wire, I found my feet again by finding a new purpose in life – to climb Everest. It was a reason to get out of bed every day and fight back. We all have goals in life, and perhaps sometimes we are pursuing things that are unattainable and need to focus on smaller steps instead.
Last year I ran a half marathon. Actually, no, I bailed about eight miles in. Mentally I was in a dark place (again). I’d started anti-depressants for the first time just days earlier, pulled out of a major speaking event, and felt like I’d failed at everything.
Racing a half marathon was too much to handle… when I’ve been known to run marathons on my own just for ‘fun’! But a few weeks later I went back and smashed my PB, plus winning my age group. I was fully capable: so what went wrong that day?
This proves that mental illness is not a sign of weakness. Yet we still have this public stigma and pressure of living up to the ‘perfect man’ stereotype; clad with muscular figures, physical strength, wealth and exuding confidence. For whatever reason, managing emotions with food is associated with weakness, more at home with thin teenage girls in the Kardashian-era than your household British male.
Eating disorders are essentially self-medication; an addiction, just like alcoholism or smoking, which are rife in men. They deserve to be taken as seriously, and the ‘man up’ response is not only wrong: it is dangerous. Talking about our challenges is the greatest strength of all.
My biggest challenge with bulimia was my ability to seek help – this was mostly fear in my own mind created by this stigma of society. However, I don’t want to put off others from speaking out. I urge them to do the opposite. Because speaking out and seeking help is overall a very positive experience. Telling someone might not offer a radical cure. But however scary it may seem, it’s the first and most important step to recovery.
We may feel we have given up. We may be stuck in the mindset of “What’s the point? How can anybody understand without being there themselves?”. Well, maybe they can’t. But a problem shared is a problem halved. It’s easy to get so tangled in our own thoughts that we cannot see the wood for the trees. I found that vast majority of people do care and listen, even if our demons tell us otherwise. We must face the world and let them burn in the light: because we are bigger and stronger than them.
I’m 22 now and without telling someone I wouldn’t have found the nutritional therapist who is now helping to unravel the thought pattern behind this behaviour – because it can be un-learnt. Progress is still progress.
I’m also lucky to have a few individuals who understand and offer an ear when needed. Together we celebrate the good days, and they pull me through the bad days, reminding me of everything that is good about life. Because through the darkness, life does get better.
Mental illness doesn’t define who we are. For me, it’s actually been a gift to help others. This year I took on “Climb The UK”, a 5,000-mile challenge of cycling, walking and kayaking to the highest point of all 100 UK counties in 72 days, whilst raising over £24,000 for Young Minds UK to help provide better support and understanding for young people facing these battles.
Because together, we CAN overcome any mountain.